How Tech Devalues Social Media Workers

Social media jobs may not involve coding. They may not involve debugging. They may not involve writing a novel or reporting. But they’re still analytical as fuck, with a measure of art in there.

by Andrea Garcia-Vargas on October 13th, 2015

Last November, I befriended four male techies I met at a club in San Francisco. Call it youth, call it impulsivity – the night was young and they seemed friendly enough. Back at the SOMA apartment we would crash at, we spoke about everything from dubstep to their internships (Firefox, Apple, Facebook, HP) and my job: at the time, I was a curator for Upworthy.

Sign reading "BAR" in stage lights.

Photo CC-BY Tricia, filtered.

They went to the same university, and were clearly a close-knit group of friends. I quickly caught onto one of their personal memes: “The social media intern.” It was a phrase they used to poke fun at the idea of people making careers by “posting” on social media platforms. If having a social media job was ridiculous, wasn’t it even more ridiculous that companies offered internships for it?

“We have a friend who runs a joke Twitter account that the four of us can Tweet from,” one of them said. “He’s…” he snickered, “our social media intern.”

I majored in English and creative writing in college. My plan by the end of four years was to go into journalism. I had no shortage of people telling me I was going to be a starving writer, or that I wasted my collegiate experience learning “useless” skills.

After a few bylines in Vice, Refinery29, Nerve, and an appearance on CNN, I was able to mostly block the unsolicited career advice people liked to drop on me.

Back then, I saw a gap between what I defined as tech and what I defined as art. Tech and creative writing existed on a binary — a binary I had grown up learning in school, and which I used to explain that I was a “words” person, a person who kept her head in a journal but couldn’t do any computer programming. I pushed away the insecurity I felt at probably being “unable” to do anything technical by reminding myself that it was okay: I was meant to be doing something else.

But as I moved away from publishing bylines and reporting, more squarely into social strategy as a career, the whole art/tech paradigm fell apart. Now, in writer and producer circles, I’m made to feel I’m not creative enough. In tech circles, I get strange looks from folks around the cocktail table: “How is this tech? How is this even a job?” Once, at an event, a man discussed how his former company has laid off “all the people that weren’t doing much”: “Like Facebook scheduling, all that social media stuff.”

Later that night, I stayed up late in my bed rewinding and replaying his words over and over again until I was strangled in my own self-doubt. “Am I really being useful to society? Am I going to be taken seriously?” I asked myself.

Old-fashioned record player.

Photo CC-BY Paul Joseph, filtered.

That’s when the late-night existential crisis began. I started wondering if I should go back to full-time writing because people might see that as more “creative,” despite the fact I have already made a committed effort not to go back to full-time writing because it was emotionally draining. I rushed to CodeAcademy’s website on my laptop, feverishly diving into tutorials, not because my heart was in it or because I had a specific project I wanted to work on, but because the prospect of having “Programming Languages: C++, Python, Ruby, Javascript” to add to my LinkedIn was enticing. In the eyes of others, those skills would have worth. And I took tutorials until my eyes drooped and I went to bed, feeling frantic, confused, and worthless.

What exactly goes into a social media job, you might earnestly ask? Scheduling Facebook posts, Tweets? Do you just slap timestamps on them?

Well, here’s just a few examples of what goes into it:

Track video retention rates. Track engagement numbers. Track the velocity of video view counts, constantly refreshing pages while tracking several additional key metrics across multiple other platforms. Figure out what part of the data is white noise and what indicates that the content is receiving the optimal amount of exposure, watch time or attention minutes, and engagement. Learn and manage a variety of technologies and analytic tools. Monitor Facebook trends and pitch content to create based on what is going to ride the trending wave. Write each and every single Facebook share text, Tweet, and any other social media post — and make sure every word of it is genuine. Learn the language of viral momentum and how it varies from platform to platform. Monitor comment sections. Respond to messages from fans, leveraging them for crowdsourced ideas and aggregating their critiques and fact-checks to bring back to producers. Collaborate with other employees of the organization, including sales — because driving traffic to sponsors’ content is key — and IT, because you are the first and primary interface with customers and users. Become the primary point of contact with other organizations with whom to coordinate traffic swaps or content collaborations. Create community, develop an audience, and develop trust — but don’t ever neglect the data.

Beyond the specific functions? The role has a hell of a lot of business value. Specifically in media, the more traffic content receives, the better you can attract sponsors. If traffic plummets heavily? Nobody will want to sponsor the content. That’s where audience and social engagement jobs come super in handy — you monitor the health of the brand’s social platforms and O&O websites. You provide the magic ingredient to get people clicking, sharing, and paying attention to the content. You can’t sell something if nobody is looking for it or discovering it in the first place.

Social media jobs may not involve coding. They may not involve debugging. They may not involve writing a novel or reporting. But they’re still analytical as fuck, with a measure of art in there. People hugely underestimate the importance of digital amplifiers who know how to use these tech platforms to distribute content, to come up with the perfect text that will get users clicking “share” instead of exiting the page, to rack up millions of views and curate online communities drawing from fields as varied as data analysis and crowd psychology.

Series of intricately-cut cubes, varying in size and sprayed with a gradient of orange to sea-green.

Photo CC-BY Jared Tarbell, filtered.

It’s a real job. And it deserves its place and respect at tech networking events, conventions, and roundtables. Some people build social platforms. Others learn the maneuvers and zeitgeist of these platforms, like a language, and make the magic of digital amplification happen. And it deserves its respect in the media industry, too — one of the reasons many media industries are still surviving is because they have people who are mastering the art of distributing content on social platforms and getting eyeballs. Even the New York Times has an audience development strategy (read: lots of focus on social media). Stellar content is stellar, but stellar content that actually gets shared and gets views is much, much preferable — and that’s thanks to the social strategists of the world.

The devaluation of social media and audience engagement roles has a serious impact — on the employees who do the jobs, on team and company dynamics, and on the success and potential of the company. Devaluation means employees in this role don’t get the resources they need — particularly company money — to experiment and test new technologies that could actually bring the company’s social and digital presence to new heights. It means that the employees’ authority as experts in how the digital world interacts isn’t taken seriously by other parts of the company, and is often ignored… so that decisions are made without the interests of marketing and amplifying content as best as it possibly could be. That, in turn, affects the company’s brand recognition, the company’s social and digital foothold and credibility online, and the company’s success.

Not every person in tech (or on the production side!) diminishes the importance of social strategy. I believe the folks at Facebook know very well that optimizing content for their algorithm and audience takes strategy and critical thinking. But for many other folks, the labor of this job remains unseen. This article is my attempt to make it seen. Social media and audience engagement roles are central to a company making it big — and everyone should be aware of that.

As an article in Columbia Journalism Review recently stated:

“The job requires guts. Guts to develop and test new ideas in an environment bereft of a catchall formula for victory. Guts to spar with hardened news editors who don’t always appreciate a break from the journalism they know. Guts to subjectively govern branded digital communities, tiptoeing between a publication’s principles and perceived censorship.”

So, to the “social media interns” of the world: Keep your chin up. We need you. In good time, everyone will realize it.